NEW YORK -- A few short months ago, the Red Sox' starting pitching depth appeared to be a real weakness.
Sure, the Sox had a talented rotation, led by Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, but what if something happened to the five starters?
Almost 60 games into the season, predictably, something has happened. John Lackey missed almost a month with elbow inflammation and the team not only survived his absence, it actually thrived while he was on the DL.
Meanwhile, Daisuke Matsuzaka was discovered to have a torn elbow ligament and will undergo season-ending surgery Friday. That, too, hasn't slowed the Sox, who today sit atop the American League East with the best record in the league.
For that, the Red Sox have the duo of Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves to thank.
"Since (Wakefield) and Aceves have taken those starts,'' said Terry Francona, "we haven't really missed too much. They've done a great job.''
In games started by the two, the Red Sox are 5-4, which might not sound like much. But consider that the starts have essentially come in the No. 5 spot in the rotation, where even good teams can be vulnerable and factor in that the Sox have a winning record in those contests.
Heads above water, in other words.
And Wednesday night, with the Red Sox bashing the New York Yankees 11-6, they were a duo of sorts, tagteaming to help the Sox win the series.
Wakefield started in the withering heat, running empty at 91 pitches and 5 13 innings. With the bullpen short -- Daniel Bard unavailable and Bobby Jenks freshly placed on the DL -- the Sox didn't want to run through two or three arms to finish out the game.
So, Aceves chipped in with 3 23 innings, piggybacking on Wakefield's start.
After going 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in four starts -- he should have won another, but Matt Albers memorably melted down against the Cubs on May 17 and robbed Aceves of a victory -- Aceves has twice given the Red Sox length out of the bullpen.
Saturday, he contributed four innings of one-one relief after the Sox coughed up a four-run lead and had to take 14 innings to beat the Oakland A's. Twice, then, in the last five days, Aceves has pitched seven innings out of the bullpen, finishing both games and allowing just two runs.
"He comes in and finishes a game,'' said Francona in admiration. "That's not an easy thing to do. But he's stretched out and he's good enough. He's so valuable. He can start if we need him to. This about (two) outings in a row now where he's helped the bullpen.''
Using only one reliever -- and staying away from late-inning bullpen mainstays -- is a gift for a manager, one that keeps paying dividends.
If Francona has to use Bard and Papelbon Thursday night in the final game in New York, he can do so without worrying about overuse.
Wakefield's value this year should not be overstated.
In the Red Sox' system, only Felix Doubront stands as a ready-for-prime-starter and he was unavailable -- both at the start of the season because of spring elbow inflammation, and then again later, due to a groin strain.
Doubront's absence could have crippled the team early when Lackey and Matsuzka went down and the team was still reeling to recover from its dismal start.
Instead, Wakefield stepped in and the team has won four of the six games he's started.
"What can you say about Wake?'' marveled Jason Varitek, who caught the knuckleballer in a start for the first time in six seasons Wednesday.
More to the point, where would the Red Sox be without him, and, on Wednesday night, his tag-team partner, too?